Many nights after a long day of homeschooling two of her children, Tamykah Anthony stands in front of the stove, cooking up natural beauty products in her kitchen at Queensbridge Houses, the city’s largest public housing development. New York.
Driven by a lifelong interest in science, she began selling the products formally in 2017, hoping to bring financial stability to her family. Now, after her business, Xanthines All Natural Products, survived the roller coaster ride of the last two years, Ms. Anthony, 36, is considering looking for factory space.
“I know people who sell food that should be in five-star restaurants,” Anthony said, referring to his neighbors in Queensbridge, Long Island City. “I know people who can lay tiles. I know hairdressers. But that transition from being really good at something to having a business, there’s a big gap there.”
As New York City officials grapple with how to ensure an equitable economic recovery from the pandemic, a new report this week of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit organization, highlights what the group has described as an urgent need to support the hundreds of entrepreneurs like Ms. Anthony who live in public housing.
Buildings managed by the New York City Housing Authority, which operates the nation’s largest public housing system, are home to more than 266,000 adults, many of whom earn increasing money from local businesses.
These informal and unregistered businesses are often a main source of income for them or a supplement to a full-time job. In the lobby of Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, fliers posted by residents advertise side activities like eyelash extensions and braided hairstyles.
In New York City, the economic fallout from the pandemic has fueled a shift toward entrepreneurship as an alternative to jobs that may not return for years, according to the new report.
Nearly a quarter of NYCHA residents worked in industries that have been among the slowest to recover, including hotels, retail stores and restaurants. And advocates estimate the unemployment rate among residents to be around 25 to 35 percent, compared to 7 percent citywide.
But the report revealed that New York City’s small business assistance programs have not been successful in reaching a large portion of residents living in NYCHA housing, where the median household income is around $25,000.
“This may be the biggest untapped business opportunity in the city,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.
NYCHA’s existing training program for entrepreneurship focuses only in catering and childcare businesses, excluding all other industries. And the program is limited in capacity, according to the report, with hundreds more applicants than available seats.
A spokesman for the city’s Department of Small Business Services said those sectors were chosen for their growth and comparatively lower barriers to entry.
Last year, about 1,600 NYCHA residents reported owning their own businesses, less than 1 percent of the total population of NYCHA residents, but five times more than in 2012, according to the report.
The increased interest in entrepreneurship reflects a national boom in startups during the pandemic. In 2020, Americans filed documents to start about 4.3 million businesses, census data showed, the highest number in the decade and a half that the government has kept track. New business applications were even higher in 2021.
Many were started out of necessity by people who had been laid off from their jobs, while others simply realized they wanted to be their own boss.
Before Ms. Anthony became a businesswoman, she went from job to job. For two years, she worked from 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm at a convenience store inside Madison Square Garden, then rushed to La Guardia Airport to work the midnight shift at a rental car counter.
She wanted to become a scientist and eventually enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, graduating with a degree in forensic toxicology. Ella but she faced a major setback in 2015 when she was diagnosed with a rare eye condition that blurred her vision, crushing her motivation to pursue lab internships.
With little money, Ms. Anthony turned her hobbies into full-time activities. She offered emerging science classes to children in Brooklyn and Queens. She researched how to make deodorant and toothpaste at home, selling them to local residents.
During the pandemic, his business benefited from a surge in online orders for his homemade elderberry gummies, from people seeking foods they believed boost immunity. Last year, she also became a yoga instructor and doula.
“I’m not in survival mode anymore,” Ms. Anthony said. “For my vision of what I am looking to provide my children, I am now looking to leave NYCHA housing.”
For Jonathan Alexander, the success of his food business, which he started while living at the Todt Hill Houses on Staten Island, allowed him to move out of the complex into a basement apartment in late 2019, when he started a takeout pie. restaurant.
Mr. Alexander, 32, started his own catering company in 2018, serving employees at corporate events. He pursued his culinary dreams after spending years working a construction job that left him with permanent burn scars on his arm.
But when he worked in New York City restaurant kitchens, he often felt disrespected and unappreciated, embarrassed to tell his colleagues that he lived on his mother’s couch in public housing.
“When I sat there on my mom’s couch, I would cry to myself,” he said. “I knew I was being held back because of my social status, being from the projects, being black, being poor.”
His takeout restaurant closed during the pandemic. And flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida destroyed his Staten Island apartment last summer, wiping out thousands of dollars worth of kitchen equipment.
Social networks became a lifesaver. Mr. Alexander searched for leading restaurateurs on apps like Instagram and Clubhouse, asking them how to negotiate contracts and raise capital. He joined EatOkra, an app that promotes black-owned restaurants. He booked freelance catering jobs through the Jitjatjo app.
Through word of mouth, Mr. Alexander’s calendar is now filling up with bookings from private chefs, including a recent offer of $22,000 to cook for a family in the Hamptons for a month. He and his son recently moved into a new house.
For NYCHA residents, one obstacle to growing a business is the fear that making more money will drive up rents. The housing authority calculates the monthly rent based in part on the value of residents’ bank accounts. Last year, the median rent for a public housing family in New York was $533.
This system, according to the new report, discourages renters from saving money to start a business or report self-employment income. NYCHA residents can also lose other government benefits, like food stamps, if their income goes over a certain limit.
The report says New York City has done too little to enroll NYCHA residents in the federal Family Self-Sufficiency Program, which allows public housing residents to accumulate savings in an escrow account without paying more for the rental.
Brandi Covington, 44, who started her catering business in 2017 while living at Pomonok Houses in Queens, now has 20 employees after she built a customer base and won city contracts. But the pandemic taught him how to set aside an emergency fund for the first time.
“Having enough money was something new for us,” he said. “For a moment, we became frivolous because we had more than we needed.”
She runs the business, Cooking With Corey, with her fiancé, Corey Whittenburg, 40, a professional chef. Her biggest contract is delivering meals to students at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a college on the Upper West Side.
The success of the business allowed Ms. Covington to move from NYCHA housing last year to an apartment in College Point, Queens.
At Ojala Threads, an online store that sells baby clothes that celebrate indigenous Caribbean heritage, 2021 was their best year ever, with nearly $6,000 in sales.
Its founder, Ramona Ferreyra, 41, a resident of Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, became an entrepreneur in 2018 after she was no longer physically able to work office jobs due to an autoimmune disorder.
Ms. Ferreyra’s biggest challenge now is finding an affordable retail space where she can display her products.
“I don’t intend to be poor for the rest of my life,” Ms. Ferreyra said. “Entrepreneurship is a path to financial independence for me.”